Shaking the Foundations: Moving Towards
Equity for Women
New Bedford, known for its Quaker principles, has been home to many women who have advocated for changes that have improved the lives of others. The RJD’s winter 2020 exhibition, “Shaking the Foundations,” features photographs of local New Bedford suffragists and some clothing from the suffragist period. The exhibition aims to help visitors understand why women protested and the incremental changes that were made towards equality. Also included are photographs of women in loose garments resembling Greek togas, dancing in the style taught by Isadora Duncan (1877-1927).
In 1848, Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793 – 1880) became the first to sign the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. A Quaker who grew up in Nantucket, Mott had been raised with the value of equality for all imbedded into her thinking, a value commonly expressed through the phrase “equal pay for equal work.” The Declaration called out the rights of all people regardless of race or gender and outlined the right each person should possess to express his or her own opinion through a vote.
Clothing of the 1920’s reflected a new boldness, powered by women’s liberation. Women rode horseback wearing jodhpurs or drove around in motorcycle sidecars. In the 1920’s they danced the Charleston and sneaked into Speak Easies.
A photo of Marie Equi (1872 -1952) is on display, along with other suffragists. Equi, a suffragist who grew up in New Bedford, attended the local schools, and worked in local textile mills. She later moved west to pursue a career in medicine in Portland, Oregon. She joined the newly formed Progressive movement, where she found her political voice. According to the historian Michael Helquist:
“Oregon’s innovations reflected a new force in the nation’s body politic —
A political vision and undertaking called Progressivism – that expressed a yearning for social change. Progressives hoped to forge a new political paradigm free of domination by corporate power brokers and guided by a robust exercise of citizen engagement.”
Equi joined Oregon’s Equal Suffrage Association led by founder Abigail Scott Duniway and Susan B. Anthony. Duniway chose methods different from the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), but the drive demonstrated by both groups resulted in growing support through several national elections. In June 1919, Congress submitted a suffrage amendment that was ratified as part of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution on August 18, 1920.
Suffrage continues to be a contentious issue in the United States. While the right to vote could no longer be denied due to one’s sex after the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, some states would continue to create obstacles that impeded voters from being able to exercise that right.
Speaking to that, the exhibition features videos from the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial campaign that demonstrate ongoing voter suppression. Having the right to vote in an election and exercising that right form the basis of American democracy. Yet that right remains threatened today, mainly for non-white or marginalized citizens, suggesting that suffrage is still a present issue 100 years after the 19th Amendment.
Photo: Image of Esther Wollison. Courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum. 2004.83.181
~Blair Walker, Curator and Manager of Collections